THE likely outcome of the battles at both ends of the Scottish Premiership table look a little clearer after Celtic ensured there was no deviation from the form book in this top-versus-bottom contest in Paisley.
Scorers: Celtic - Forrest 65, Johansen 79 (pen)
Second-half goals by James Forrest and Stefan Johansen secured a hard-earned but merited victory for Ronny Deila’s side to move them a commanding eight points ahead of Aberdeen in pursuit of the title.
St Mirren were left with nothing to show for a gutsy effort, their miserable home form continuing and leaving them four points adrift at the foot of the pile and still firm favourites for the automatic relegation spot.
While this was far from Celtic’s most fluent or impressive display, they now have a momentum and focus which seems unlikely to be disturbed in their quest for a fourth successive domestic crown.
As Deila looked for Celtic to pick up where they left off before the international break, there was a mild surprise in his starting line-up. With Leigh Griffiths and John Guidetti both beginning the evening on the subs’ bench, Anthony Stokes was given a rare opportunity to fill the central striker’s role in the Norwegian’s 4-2-3-1 system.
Stokes, who has spent most of the season operating on the left of the advanced midfield trio, had the chance to make a quick impression in his favoured position. With just three minutes on the clock, he brought the ball under control with a fine first touch and turn on the edge of the penalty area but he screwed his shot just wide of the target.
Celtic predictably commanded the lion’s share of possession from the opening exchanges but St Mirren, with Jim Goodwin as the holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 set-up, defended with diligence and determination.
Kris Commons provided the greatest threat to their stout resistance as he enjoyed a roving role as the main attacking support for Stokes.
Mark Ridgers was called into action for the first time in the eighth minute when Commons attempted an audacious cross-cum-shot from an implausible angle on the left which the St Mirren goalkeeper scrambled to keep out at his near post.
Commons fired another effort from a more conventional position just wide of Ridgers’ left-hand post as Celtic continued to dominate.
They should have made the breakthrough in the 26th minute with Commons again the central figure in a fine move. He caught Saints a little flat-footed with a quickly taken free-kick, finding Stuart Armstrong on the left. Armstrong held the ball up before returning it to Commons, who had made a perfectly timed run into the penalty area. He looked certain to score but struck his shot too closely to Ridgers who was able to make a solid save.
Forrest, hungry for action after spending the international break as an unused substitute in two games with Scotland, was next to try his luck for the visitors but the winger dragged his right-foot shot wide of Ridgers’ right-hand post.
It took Saints until the half-hour mark to finally announce themselves as an attacking threat of any note. Kieran Sadlier whipped over a good cross from the left which the diminutive Stevie Mallan somehow managed to head towards goal, forcing Craig Gordon into a reasonably comfortable save.
Celtic’s response was to create another premium opportunity at the other end. A piercing pass from Commons picked out Forrest inside the penalty area but his low shot was too central and kept out by the alert Ridgers.
St Mirren finished the first half on a slightly more progressive and ambitious note, managing to ask some questions of the Celtic defence at last. They had a half-hearted penalty appeal turned down when Mallan went down under Armstrong’s challenge, the ball breaking into the path of Yoann
Arquin who drove a low shot straight at Gordon.
Celtic re-imposed themselves on proceedings at the start of the second half, Commons again the creative influence as he set up a chance for Stokes. The Irish striker might have done better than stab his shot directly at Ridgers.
The lively Mallan attempted to catch Gordon unawares at the other end with a fiercely-struck snapshot from 25 yards, which dipped and swerved just wide of the Celtic goalkeeper’s right-hand post.
The home fans were incensed when referee Alan Muir then failed to penalise Scott Brown for what appeared a blatant foul by the Celtic captain on Mallan. Play was waved on and Celtic almost scored in bizarre fashion when Stokes’ shot was blocked and cannoned off Jason Naismith to send the ball looping inches wide of the helpless Ridgers’ left-hand post.
Frustration began to creep into Celtic’s play and Deila was poised to make changes in a bid to revitalise their efforts. Forrest, who had flitted in and out of the action up until that point, was one of those he was ready to withdraw but the winger altered his manager’s plans by making the 64th-minute breakthrough.
It was a well constructed goal, Brown picking out Adam Matthews on the right of the penalty area with a neat pass inside Saints’ full-back Jeroen Tesselaar. The low cut-back from Matthews picked out Forrest, who drove a firm shot beyond Ridgers.
Deila duly made his double substitution, but it was Armstrong instead of Forrest who was replaced by Nir Bitton, while Efe Ambrose came on for Matthews.
The goal was a painful blow for Saints who had put so much into the contest and their misery was completed when Celtic doubled their lead from the penalty spot with 11 minutes remaining. Referee Muir had no hesitation in giving the award when a Forrest shot struck a hand of Saints’ Bulgarian defender Victor Genev. Celtic’s victory and healthy lead at the top of the table was assured by Johansen’s firm conversion from 12 yards.
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